Every three minutes, someone in the UK develops dementia; an umbrella term used to describe a reduction in brain function such as memory loss or difficulties with thinking, problem solving or language. And that figure is set to rise – by 2051, experts expect dementia numbers to soar from the current 850,000 affected people to more than two million sufferers. It’s one of the most feared aspects of ageing, so what can you do to bolster your defences?
It’s simple – try exercising! Regular work outs could nurture your noggin, yet more than a third of us aren’t moving enough. “Exercise can change the way the brain functions and protect memory, as well as improve thinking,” affirms David Weiner, training specialist at fitness app Freeletics (freeletics.com). “Aerobic exercise, in particular, can increase the size of the hippocampus, which is the part of the brain that’s involved in verbal memory and learning.”
Here’s how it works: keeping active boosts nutrient-rich blood flow to the brain and encourages the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a chemical that stimulates brain growth. Research from the University of Maryland also suggests that moving more improves brain connectivity, helping new neurons to wire into the neural network. As we age, we create fewer new brain cells, but neuroscientists from Cambridge University report that getting active could help reverse this process.
In short, frequent exercise will give you a healthier, hardier brain and, with our guide to bolstering your grey matter, it’s never too late to start moving.
In your 30s
Where did you leave your keys, again? During your 30s, your memory may start to decline. “The number of neurons in the brain begins to decrease,” explains Dr Emma Derbyshire, nutritionist at brain health supplement brand Equazen (equazen.co.uk). “It could take longer to learn new tasks and remembering words or names may become increasingly difficult.”
What should I do?
Your 30s can be a busy time, with work, family and social pressures, so finding an aerobic activity that fits into your day is key. Try time effective, high-intensity interval training (HIIT). Research shows that regular HIIT can delay cognitive decline by up to a decade. “Just as your heart adapts to high-intensity exercise, the neurons in your brain also adapt to the stress,” explains David. “When you exercise, your muscle cells will release a protein called FNDC5 which increases the production of BDNF and stimulates the creation of new neurons.”
In your 40s
If you’re finding it difficult to solve daily problems, you’re not alone. From our mid-40s, science shows that reasoning skills may slow. In fact, one study in the British Medical Journal reveals that 45-49-year-olds experienced a 3.6 percent decline in reasoning over 10 years. It’s not all bad news, though: “Other measures of cognition, such as moral decision making, reading social situations and regulating emotions, may actually improve during the middle years,” says Dr Emma.
What should I do?
Another big change that can occur to women around this decade is the start of the perimenopause, which causes oestrogen levels to decline and increases the risk of osteoporosis. Weight-bearing, bone-boosting moves such as running, are great options to help ward off neural and skeletal issues. “Jogging stimulates the creation of new nerve cells and blood vessels within the brain,” reveals David. “It may even increase the volume of the mid-brain that controls vision, and the hippocampus, which is linked to memory and learning.” Ready to lace up?
In your 50s
By the time you hit your 50s, you may be experiencing regular memory lapses. In fact, studies suggest that the time it takes to perform a cognitive task, starts to reduce at the ripe age of 25 and continues to decline every decade thereafter. By 50, you could really be suffering. Fortunately, a study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine reports that memory skills and thinking are most improved among the 50-plus folk who do moderate, but regular aerobic and strength training.
What should I do?
Never exercised before? It’s not too late to begin. “Cycling or exercising on the cross trainer are good options for newbies as they’re both low-impact,” adds David. “Research has also found that a ﬁve percent improvement in cardio-respiratory ﬁtness from cycling led to an improvement of up to 15 percent in mental tests.” Further data confirms that regular pedalling can boost memory and problem-solving skills by an impressive 20 percent. Ride on!
In your 60s+
As you enter the sixth decade of your life, Alzheimer’s may be playing on your mind. Data shows that most people with the disease are 65 or older. Researchers believe this may be due to inflammation as a result of ageing, which can negatively affect parts of the brain responsible for forming new memories, such as the hippocampus region. “The brain may become less efficient at gaining the knowledge it has accumulated over its lifetime,” adds Dr Emma.
What should I do?
After the age of 60, your body may not cope as well with vigorous exercise as it did when you were in your 20s. Fortunately, walking around the block, gardening and cleaning have all been shown to improve thinking. “Swimming is great,” adds David. “It’s low-impact and research has found that immersing oneself in water increases blood flow to the brain.”
Exercise isn’t your only brain-boosting option. Follow these tips from Dr Liron Jacobson, neuroscientist at Peak brain training app (peak.net)
Pay attention to your diet. Omega 3 fatty acids, vitamin E and antioxidants might all slow cognitive decline. Add oily fish or blueberries to your diet.
The stress hormone cortisol affects the brain negatively, and poor sleep is associated with memory lapses. Your brain would benefit from a relaxing activity such as meditation.
We are social creatures, so much so, that loneliness has been linked to dementia. Find the time to make real social interactions.
Use it or lose it
Learn a new skill or language and do other mental exercises to keep your noggin healthy. The brain is like a muscle – challenging it positively affects its functionality.